I recently came across a couple of articles online that illustrate some of the shortcomings I think are present in many forms of multi-faith engagement aimed at evangelicals. In connection with my grant project research for the last three years, I’ve discovered the psychology underlying common evangelical objections to interfaith dialogue, and I’ve shared some of those insights in various blog posts and email updates. But to make sure there’s no misunderstanding, with this piece I’ll clarify my approach, and interact with the two articles that upon closer examination illustrate how we might be more strategic and effective in facilitating change among evangelicals moving forward.
To begin, let me share some comments about my methods. Some readers might assume that given my research in moral psychology that I am somehow arguing for a psychological approach over theology and theologically-informed praxis in multi-faith engagement. But this is not the case. Instead, I’m urging evangelicals to bring their theology of multi-faith engagement and peacemaking into conversation with moral psychology (and other important academic disciplines). For many years our work in biblical studies and theology has been interacting with various disciplines, including ancient history, archaeology, linguistics, anthropology, and cultural studies. This is most evident in missiology, where the insights from these disciplines are blended together in order to facilitate the cross-cultural communication of the gospel. So the basic idea is not new, even if the thought of interacting more with moral psychology hasn’t been pursued much by evangelicals. I believe that it holds great potential to help us understand ourselves, and others, in the context of multi-faith engagement. This can help us understand why so many in our tribe have been resistant to various interfaith efforts.
This brings me to my second area of discussion, spawned recently by a couple of online articles. And this is where we can see the real benefit of moral psychology in helping us understand some typical evangelical reactions to interfaith approaches. The first article is titled “Jesus CAN Co-Exist: A Response to the Rev. Karl Schaffenburg,” over at the Faith Line Protestants website, with the tag line “Living Christian in a religiously diverse world.” As the title of this essay indicates, the author is interacting with the concerns a pastor has about an approach to religious pluralism in our society exemplified by the “COEXIST” bumper sticker, usually spelled out with the symbols from various religions filling in for the letters. This approach to religious pluralism is similar to calls for tolerance, and this too can be found as a bumper sticker slogan. The essence of Rev. Schaffenburg’s disagreement with coexist, and why he sees this as incompatible with the way of Jesus, is that Christianity makes exclusive truth claims, and as the reverend understands it, the coexist approach involves a denial of such claims, and instead advocates universalism, relativism, or perhaps syncretism.
In the response by Faith Line Protestants (FLP), the author points out that the assumption that one must give up truth claims in order to coexist isn’t necessarily the case, and this isn’t the approach of FLP. The article goes on to say that they follow a model promoted at Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), and that in relation to the pastoral critique, “IFYC focuses on shared values and does not suppose or support shared theologies. So do we.” I’ll come back to this response in a moment.
I think that both of these essays are arguing for valuable and needed endeavors. I think Jesus would support a positive form of multi-faith engagement, one that incorporates both respect and concerns for truth claims. I also believe there is value in a “confident pluralism,” and that Christian colleges should do more to prepare their students for multi-faith relationships. However, I think the approach that both of these essays take in arguing for multi-faith encounters largely misses the mark in resonating with the concerns of many conservative evangelicals in this context. Moral psychology can help us understand why, and to better frame our efforts.
Moral foundations theory is an important part of social psychology. Scientific studies have been done which reveal that progressives and conservatives emphasize different moral foundations. Progressives tend to emphasize two foundations, care and fairness, whereas conservatives tend to emphasize loyalty, authority, and purity. What this means in connection with multi-faith engagement is that progressives, given their concerns for fairness toward others, more naturally gravitate toward interfaith approaches where the call is to care for minority religious groups, and to coexist with and tolerate others with whom we might disagree on important religious matters. But conservatives come at this from a very different set of moral foundations. They are interested in truth, so much so that it certainly functions as a part of their identity, and truth may also serve as a moral foundation for them as well. In addition, their moral foundations emphasize ingroup/loyalty that includes things like patriotism, authority/respect that includes their understanding of what it means to be a “real American” as well as recognition of religious authority in relation to their understanding of Scripture, and purity/sanctity that involves notions of holiness and freedom from contamination.
When many conservative evangelicals draw upon their moral foundations, particularly purity/sanctity, they understand religious pluralism very differently than progressives involved in interfaith work. For them, the presence of non-Christian religions represents not only a challenge to what it means to be an American, but religiously, the thought of interacting with members of other religions, and perhaps even thinking about their teachings, can elicit fears of contamination, and a response of disgust. When you add in the long history of tension between evangelicalism and the world of Islam, and the trauma of 9/11 that was amplified by the rise of ISIS and the ongoing “War on Terror,” this then becomes a strong moral, emotional, and cognitive framework through which multi-faith engagement is understood. I believe this is the psychology underlying the pastor’s objections to coexist responded to in the FLP article. Rather than seeing an opportunity to engage others in a respectful and non-compromising way, the pastor views other religions as sources of spiritual contamination. And just like he’d avoid foods that might lead to illness, he is disgusted by the mere thought and prefers a different approach that clearly spells out the differences between Christians and non-Christians, the clean from the unclean. A similar dynamic is at work with calls for Christian colleges to “showcase pluralism.” Evangelical concerns for syncretism and fears of compromise must be accounted for at the outset in any plans to address religious pluralism. The case of Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton College is an example of how such issues can become major challenges for Christian educational institutions once evangelical concerns for purity and fears of contamination are triggered.
If we want to see greater numbers of conservative evangelicals embrace positive forms of multi-faith engagement and peacemaking it will require a better understanding of the moral foundations we draw upon in living our lives and our faith. Appeals to interfaith relationships and confident pluralism that are based on progressive moral foundations rather than conservative ones are doomed to fail. In my view, even those approaches that cite biblical passages and point to love of neighbor and hospitality will not be very successful unless they account for the psychological dynamics at work due to the strong emotional influence of these moral foundations. Therefore, we should ask ourselves how we might contextualize our multi-faith efforts by drawing upon conservative moral foundations in framing more persuasive arguments, while also offering prophetic challenge to consider the merits of something new.